1. Natural History Museum Library and Archives – Tinc in Museum Library Land


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God, I bloody love libraries. I am a librarian at heart, I have an MA in it, no messing. I have worked in public libraries (where I actually got to stamp books, heaven), law libraries (just don’t mention the Civil Procedure Rules to me), media libraries (I actually have a few credits in the FT, oh yes), and academic libraries (the REF killed those for me). But one little place I have never been in, one special secret library type I am desperate to have a nose in, is the museum library.

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In a world of libraries, they are the secret special things, a library in a museum, surely this has to be the best place in the whole world. You can’t always touch stuff in museums, but in libraries in museums, you can sit down with books, lay your hands on them, sniff them, and read all they have to share. If you have a special love, a heart’s desire, an obsessive fascination you can find the museum library on your topic and revel in all it has to give you.

So how do I get to grips and understand these museum libraries, because they are massively misunderstood by the general public.

1 – They don’t know they are there.

2 – They think you have to work at the museum or be an academic to visit them (sometimes the case, but not always).

3 – They think you have to pay to visit them (occasionally).

4 – They think you have to make an appointment to visit (not always the case).

So I dipped a toe in the ocean of museum libraries on ‘Ask a Curator Day’ 2014, and I asked about Museum Libraries. I got a fantastic response that you can see here. Suddenly a world has opened up to me, and I want to visit every single library. But when? How? So I have decided on a series of blogs – this is Number 1, knowing how unorganised I am, Number 2 will probably be in about three years. But, hey, you have to start somewhere, so here I go, Number 1 of “Tinc in Museum Library Land’ – Natural History Museum Library and Archives.

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Back in September, I met Hellen Pethers, Reader Services Librarian at the Natural History Museum (NHM). We spent a few hours together, she showed me around, we talked libraries and it was fantastic.

To begin with, they have 80 locations on and off site, which is just insane. The library origins come from Hans Sloane’s British Museum collection. The natural history objects were hived off and used to found the Natural History Museum, artwork and manuscripts came with the animals and specimens in 1881, but no books. It was the task of the first librarian, Bernard Woodward to build a library of Natural History – it must have been an amazing, challenging task.

Beautiful books!
Beautiful books!

They now have over 3,000 visitors a year, at a time when the Imperial War Museum Library is threatened with closure and cutbacks, and yet the Wellcome Trust open up a brand new reading room and public library spaces – it is a confusing world. What is the future of these collections? Not having bright and shiny public profile can often put them at risk. Think of the museum you visit the most – do they have a library? Have you had a visit?

Hellen tells me how they began using Twitter two years ago, which has helped them find a voice, connect with users and given them a little bit of freedom. It is not always easy to pull out from a museum brand, it can be tricky to get a little bit of autonomy on a public voice but it has been a wonderful tool for them.

I think he might need help getting the book off the shelf
I think he might need help getting the book off the shelf

During ‘Museum Week‘ they were able to connect with lots of new audiences, in particular on ‘Buildings behind the art’, they shared original drawings held by the library of the animals carved into the building. It allowed them to connect with fans of the architect behind the museum, Alfred Waterhouse, and discover more about his Liverpool origins.

There is a community and a commonality of interest just waiting to be found, and Twitter is a way for museum libraries to break down misconceptions and barriers in an informal and friendly way. Libraries with a personality – who would have thought it!

The library’s primary remit is to support the work of the museum, their second is to allow public access to the collection and to promote access to research materials. We talk about their new newly acquired Library Management System which means they can offer a one stop collections search, incorporating their paper library, electronic and Archives collections. Hellen is in the midst of rolling out training to allow users inside and outside the building to effectively order and get access to publications. We talk of classification systems, in-house and the use of UDC – Universal Decimal Classification.

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Ah! The classification of books! The hairs on the back of my neck stand up, cut my heart in two and it has paper pages (although the NHM may dispute this). We talk of the pressures of space that all museums face, how libraries can be squeezed, but the need to balance the space with the demand for users who need areas to work. There is sometimes a trade-off with public and staff perceptions of what should be available, how easy it is to access it, it is important to provide an area of study in the heart of the museum.

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We also talk about the digitisation of documents and how this has unlocked some amazing collections, the Wallace Letters online – the correspondence between Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin on evolution and natural selection. Also the NHM involvement in the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the massive job of scanning publications. This raises awareness of resources and reaches a wider audience. It is no longer about physical collection, and it hasn’t been for years. Sometimes we forget what good work is going on and the constant need to publicise and show off these amazing resources.

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What impresses me the most on my visit is the extent to which library staff at the Natural History Museum are encouraged to write and publish their own research. Hellen has a love of ephemera, she is not just working on collections but has a passion and knowledge equal to any museum curator. She shows me publications that library staff have produced and contributed to and I am very impressed. You can see her work (Through the window of printed ephemera:the weird and wonderful world of menageries by Hellen Sharman) in the Summer 2012 edition of Evolve the museums’ quarterly magazine. Library and archives staff also feature in the most recent issue as well – Evolve Issue 21 Autumn 2014.

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The library staff are involved in public talks like ‘Nature Live’ and Hellen, outside of her day-to-day duties, has worked at the ‘Dino Snores’ event for children. Having worked in a media library where staff were cut from around 30 to 2 and the constant refrain of “everything is on the internet now” was often heard, I can’t help but think that if we had raised the profile of individuals and the team as a whole it would have helped. Even as I leave the library there is a display where main museum staff come in, showcasing some library research and treasures. I love this public facing attitude.

Showcasing library and archives work
Showcasing library and archives work

So whilst ‘outsiders’ are never going to fully understand the intricacies of classification and cataloguing, showing off a team with an amazing breadth of knowledge and skill in research is vital in a time of cuts and redundancies. It doesn’t matter how many electronic resources you have, without the guidance and skills of trained library professionals you will be lost in a maze of search results and never have the time to find what you really need.

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Finally, Hellen tells me about the art works held by the library and archives and I am blown away by the depth and breadth of the collection. I leave overwhelmed with new knowledge and facts about a truly special museum library. I am so pleased to have begun my travels in ‘Museum Library Land’.

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It is all about inspiration, whatever age you are
It is all about inspiration, whatever age you are

I don’t know why museum libraries are often hidden away, to me they are just as full of treasures as the display cabinets in the public galleries. They are special spaces where you can look round the shelves and feel those years of study and research, the drive to understand and explore. The library staff are just as valuable, they have unrivalled understanding of the books and resources at their fingertips. So if you see a sign in your next museum visit – “Library here”, poke you head round the door, have a chat, ask about access, ask about resources, see where the reading spaces are. Take a book off the shelf and sit down and read. Museums are all about knowledge and sharing that knowledge, what better place to start than in the library.

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Behind these doors……..Library surprise!
Behind these doors……..Library surprise!


With special thanks to Hellen Pethers for taking time to show me around, you can find her on Twitter at @ohreallyhells

To find out more about the Natural History Museum Library and Archives please visit their website www.nhm.ac.uk/library

You can find out more about museum libraries via MLAG – the Museum Librarians and Archivists Group  on Twitter @MLAGuk



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